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October 25, 2010

When We Decide to Know

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Usually I avoid rubbing your face in it, but not today.  This image, which has been sitting on my desktop for a few months, is offered out of anger, grief, and extreme frustration with press, public, and the Obama administration–and most of all with the public.

The photograph records a badly maimed soldier being delivered to a military hospital in Kandahar.  Think of how many times you have read about IEDs and about wounds suffered from IED explosions.  Did you ever imagine anything like this?  Think of all the photographs you’ve seen of soldiers standing guard, walking on patrol, talking with villagers, or deploying for another mission.  Did you ever consider how those photos were being used instead of images like this one?

And while we’re asking questions, did you notice, when looking at the photograph above, how absolutely routine this event is to the medical personnel?  Only the soldier jogging out the door looks a bit concerned, and he may be steeling himself against what he knows he is going to see up close.  Everyone else, including the stretcher bearer, has the postures–that is, the attitudes–of complete habituation.  The guy on the right could be waiting to take a number at the social security office.  Something horrific, catastrophic, and uniquely terrible has happened to the soldier on the stretcher, but to everybody else it’s something they’ve seen a thousand times.

If the war in Afghanistan were vital to national security, perhaps this sacrifice would be worth it.  If you have to fight, you want your military to have the experience and other capabilities necessary to handle catastrophic injuries efficiently.  But we know that national security is not on the line in Afghanistan.

We do know that, don’t we?  Two stories intersect today to underscore my frustration: First, press analysis of the WikiLeaks archive of 391,832 documents is exposing greater than admitted death tolls, abuses by US contractors, and brutality by other US allies, as well as US knowledge or and lying about this information.  Second, New York Times photographer Joao Silva was badly injured by a land mine in Afghanistan.  Leg wounds, and others as well.

One reason I am so angry and frustrated is that there really should be no need for the Wikileak documents, or for brave photojournalists to continue to take risks to inform the public.  I want to take nothing away from those who released the documents, or from Silva, whose work I have posted here with deep admiration and respect.  The truth of the matter, however, is that the public has had plenty of information for many years about the sacrifice of our troops and our treasure in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  Likewise, the government has known even more of the costs, and has yet–in all this time, and across two administrations–been able to provide a single, legitimate, valid rationale for continuing the war.  (For the record, I think the original invasion of Afghanistan was justified, but that now has no bearing on the current operations.  And I appreciate that public opinion polls state that a majority of Americans oppose the war, but that level of opposition obviously is not enough.)

I think the basic problem is that people, at least collectively, decide to know.  It is not the case that we know and then act.  We decide when we will know, and then we are more likely to act.  You can have the truth staring you in the face, but it doesn’t matter until you decide to suspend all the habits of amnesia, distraction, rationalization, and denial that are otherwise in place and reproduced continuously.  Once we decide, we can look back and see that there was plenty of information there all along.  But we have to make that decision.

The question remains, what will it take to get enough people to decide to know that our war in Afghanistan is futile?  Sometimes, a photograph will make the difference.  But how many photographers and soldiers have to be used up until that day arrives?

  • black dog barking

    I imagine that trauma care requires a game face, that certain human responses must be blocked in order to do the job at hand. I see that game face in this picture. Sadly, it is routine for trauma personnel in Afghanistan. “Sadly” is an understatement.

    Sadly (also predictably), as you note, the Mideast Power Projection Project has taken a life of its own and lives on without articulate raison d’etre. We’ve made a huge mistake.

  • John E Williams

    I agree with black dog barking — civilian medical and emergency personnel must detach themselves as much as possible from the constant onslaught of trauma and grisliness that comes their way in order to do their jobs, and I can only imagine that for military personnel it’s that much more essential. And because it’s their job, a certain sense of routine does settle in, but again it’s because otherwise they could not function.

    This is not telling you anything you don’t know, and it certainly takes nothing away from your larger point, but I don’t believe there is anything casual or numbed about how these people go about their jobs, and I don’t think they are a reflection of American civilians’ tendency to block out or not care about what’s happening over there.

  • g

    The tender, perfect, clean hand of the wounded soldier is heartbreaking, pointing like Adams’s to God in the Sistine Chapel.

  • Robert Hariman

    I’m sorry I wasn’t clear enough, and you guys are right that distinctions need to be made here. I am not in any way criticizing the medical personnel. The are not numbed or indifferent; they are experienced professionals who have become highly skilled at treating soldiers who have been horribly maimed. As was stated in the Times article I reference, “’He [Silva] seems to have gotten excellent care,” Mr. Keller wrote. “Sadly, the military has become extremely proficient in handling this kind of injury.” My point is precisely that: it is sad that they have had to become so proficient. I’m also trying to show how photographs contain more information than we might recognize explicitly: in this case, the routine behavior of the military personnel is evidence of how long this war has gone on and how many soldiers have suffered life-changing injuries. Injuries whose nature and effects otherwise are hidden by terms like “wounded” and photographs of able-bodied troops being deployed without apparent harm.

    • black dog barking

      We’ve made significant progress in the treatment of traumatic wounds because of our experience in Iraq and Afghanistan. Perhaps we’ve learned enough justify closing up shop and bringing everyone home.

    • John E Williams

      Robert, thanks for the clarification, and it’s not quite that I thought you were ‘criticizing’ the medical personnel as much as it seemed you were connecting their routine reactions with the indifference of the American people. I see now that you were not.

  • Vvoter

    I respect Robert Hariman’s work and I admire his scholarship. Clearly he is at the forefront of intelligent reflection on the role that photojournalism plays in collective life.

    I also share the frustration with how our adventures in the Middle East are absolutely censored by military and media establishments. In addition to restricting certain types of images from public view, each week news outlets shine their lights on trivial matters – NPR vs Williams, Bret Favre’s texts, etc – while the trauma of war rolls on.

    Our social psychological disinterest in Iraq and Afghanistan make sense to me, however. To my mind, the habitual response of armed service personnel to the “horrific, catastrophic, and uniquely terrible” does, in fact, provide a template for how the collective psyche must operate if the collectivity as a whole is to function, much in line with what John E Williams points out above.

    Like many who work in the academy, Hariman’s job necessarily involves deep reflection on matters of social importance. For those of us whose work demands that our attention be directed toward far more mundane matters, however, how much more difficult is it for us to concentrate the few hours of personal time we have each week onto the horrific, catastrophic, and uniquely terrible?

    Indeed, some do. But Hariman implicates the collective ‘we,’ suggesting that since the futility of our Middle East adventures is not known by many, it is not known at all. But clearly he knows it. And like the nether regions of the individual or collective psyche, the knowledge of trauma must be relegated to a very specialized(?) region for “normal” functioning to be maintained. (Granted, this normality must also be questioned).

    Perhaps those with either the luxury or the responsibility to think deeply about matters of public life function as that specialized region for the collective whole. For if everybody’s attention were as concentrated on the matter as, say, Robert Hariman’s, the collective whole would be unable to function.

  • managed care

    ‘nothing happens until it happens to you,’
    ‘you don’t/can’t care until…’

  • Benny_s

    I’m so sorry.

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